About 50 years ago, English had more native speakers than any language except Mandarin. Today both Spanish and Hindi-Urdu have as many native speakers as English does. By the middle of this century, English could fall into fifth place behind Arabic in the numbers who speak it as a first language.Hmm, what two languages that we typically teach in U.S. high schools are missing from that list? (Note: I think learning another language is as much about learning the history and the culture as it is about learning to communicate in that language, but I think it's still a question worth asking.)
The issue is: whose English will it be? Non-native speakers now outnumber native English-speakers by three to one. As hundreds of millions more learn the language, that imbalance will grow. Mr Graddol says the majority of encounters in English today take place between non-native speakers. Indeed, he adds, many business meetings held in English appear to run more smoothly when there are no native English-speakers present.I’m not sure if it strikes anyone else this way, but the phrase “the majority of encounters in English today take place between non-native speakers” really seems significant to me. Especially when you follow it up with “relief at the absence of native speakers is common.” I wonder what implications that has (if any) on how we teach English to native speakers? I also wonder what that will look like over time, as more and more non-native speakers use English to communicate, will native speakers be the ones who have to adapt? Apparently that’s not so far-fetched.
Barbara Seidlhofer, professor of English and applied linguistics at the University of Vienna, says relief at the absence of native speakers is common. “When we talk to people (often professionals) about international communication, this observation is made very often indeed. We haven’t conducted a systematic study of this yet, so what I say is anecdotal for the moment, but there seems to be very widespread agreement about it,” she says. She quotes an Austrian banker as saying: “I always find it easier to do business [in English] with partners from Greece or Russia or Denmark. But when the Irish call, it gets complicated and taxing.”
Those who insist on standard English grammar remain in a powerful position. Scientists and academics who want their work published in international journals have to adhere to the grammatical rules followed by the native English-speaking elites.I don’t want to get into the immigration debate currently raging in the U.S. (and elsewhere), but this idea of a majority becoming a minority is something I need to think more about, especially in relation to 21st century literacy. Certainly we are already seeing that happen in many areas in the U.S. and, if current trends continue, that will only accelerate, with profound implications for life in the United States.
But spoken English is another matter. Why should non-native speakers bother with what native speakers regard as correct? Their main aim, after all, is to be understood by one another. As Mr Graddol says, in most cases there is no native speaker present.
Prof Seidlhofer says that the English spoken by non-native speakers “is a natural language, and natural languages are difficult to control by ‘legislation’.
. . . When native speakers work in an international organisation, some report their language changing. Mr Crystal has written: “On several occasions, I have encountered English-as-a-first-language politicians, diplomats and civil servants working in Brussels commenting on how they have felt their own English being pulled in the direction of these foreign-language patterns . . . These people are not ‘talking down’ to their colleagues or consciously adopting simpler expressions, for the English of their interlocutors may be as fluent as their own. It is a natural process of accommodation, which in due course could lead to new standardised forms.”
Perhaps written English will eventually make these accommodations too. Today, having an article published in the Harvard Business Review or the British Medical Journal represents a substantial professional accomplishment for a business academic from China or a medical researcher from Thailand. But it is possible to imagine a time when a pan-Asian journal, for example, becomes equally, or more, prestigious and imposes its own “Globish” grammatical standards on writers – its editors changing “the patient feels” to “the patient feel”.
Native English speakers may wince but are an ever-shrinking minority.
But I find the idea of native English speakers being a minority in the global community of English speakers fascinating. At what point does the English as a second (or third or . . .) language majority change the very definition of what is acceptable English – and therefore become the de facto “native speaker”? And what does all this mean for education and how we help our student learn to communicate effectively in a flatter, globally interconnected, English as a second language world?